September 25; Central Asia (once known as Soviet Central Asia) is a dangerous region, even more so than the Balkans. The Soviets, masters of "Divide and Rule", drew the borders to give each country a dominant ethnic group with a significant chunk of territory dominated by a rival group. The point where Tajikistan, Kirgizstan, and Uzbekhistan come together looks like something from a special effects morphing program; the borders are twisted into a spiral that leaves each country with a piece of contiguous territory all but buried inside the other two countries. The rise of Islamic fundamentalism (fueled by Iran and its rival Pakistan) has made things worse. The worst off of the lot is Uzbekhistan, bedeviled by an Islamic insurgency and made worse by iron-fisted Party boss Karimov. A draconian crackdown on militants was launched in 1997, and this became even worse last February when militants tried to kill Karimov with a car bomb and failed. He reacted as if the attack was a personal insult (which it was), arresting hundreds of people sympathetic to or linked to the insurgents. This crackdown, in turn, drove more into the rebel ranks. The worst of the rebels are 1,500 fanatics led by Jumaboy Khodijiyev, better known as Namangani. It was this group that attempted to bomb Karimov. Namangani is a zealot who fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban troops and with the UTO rebels in neighboring Tajikistan. (The UTO rebels gave shelter to Namangani, and now that the UTO is a defacto part of the Tajik government, that government is doing nothing to control the rebels.) The Uzbek air force bombed Namangani's camps in Tajikhistan; after a major diplomatic incident the Uzbeks would only admit that planes lost on a strike against
rebels in Uzbek territory had accidentally bombed a remote area of Tajikistan. Already angered by the chain of events, Uzbekhistan has let it be known that it wants the Khojent region of Tajikhistan (which is ethnic Uzbek and home to Namangani's bases) handed over to resolve
"pre-independence Soviet meddling".
Kirgizstan also suffers from the attentions of Namangani, who has led raids by Uzbeks based in Khojent. These raids have kidnapped Kirgiz officials and held them for ransom (although they received $50,000 rather than the $1 million they demanded) and are currently holding four Japanese geologists who were studying the area for future mining development. Tokyo is reportedly providing some form of support for a planned counter-raid to rescue the geologists.
Tajikhistan has solved its problem with the UTO rebels by simply absorbing them into the government. A recent decision by the Supreme Court
(arranged ahead of time as part of the peace deal) legalized the long-banned Islamic fundamentalist parties. Of the 7,000 UTO rebels who fought the government for several years, half are now in the Army or police, including entire intact battalions of (former rebel) UTO troops under their own (former rebel) UTO officers. The peace deal, which had been
shaky since it was signed two years ago, was finally stabilized this summer when the last holdouts (800 fanatics under warlord Mirza
Zia'ev) became government troops and Zia'ev became Minister of Civil Defense and Emergency Situations. Most of his troops remain under his command as part of his special job in the government. Analysts assume that the fundamentalists will gain total control of Tajikhistan at the next elections (Feb 2000).--Stephen V Cole